Ubiquitous power generation

Back in 2002, I was looking for niche ideas that would break me out of working (and hopefully make me independent).

One of the ideas I hit upon (though have not researched in any great detail) is ubiquitous power generation. People (well, politicians and organizations with vested interest) always talk about huge energy producing projects (whether hydro, wind, nuclear, or some sort of fired plant), they never really talk about conservation and reducing the energy footprint (except after that power outage we had in 2003). However, it seems to me, that no one ever focuses on generating power during our everyday activities. Granted, it is not as sexy to generate 5mW of power as it is to have a 25MW nuclear reactor, but enough small (let's call them nano-generators) could be useful for generating power.

The first thing I thought of was doors (actually revolving doors, but regular swinging doors would work just as well). The doors are stiff because there is a damper installed (which takes the energy imparted to the door and turns it into waste heat). What if this damper was a little generator instead? A generator would convert the energy of moving the door into electricity. The process of generating electricity would provide the resistance you need to dampen the doors motion. This would also work with push open doors, the damper would again be replaced with a generator.

Another idea I had was to underlay floors with piezo electric elements. They could be manufactured in the form of mats and layered if need be (they don't have to be very thick). They also don't require a lot of deformation (less than 0.1%) in order to generate electricity. Piezo electric crystals are used in electronic lighters - a hammer hits a crystal, it generates a potential of several thousand volts, this sparks across a small gap, lighting the butane or propane.

I have no idea how much power you could get out of a piezo electric mat, since nobody seems to think of piezo electric crystals are power source, more as curiosities with narrow niches.

Image the floor of your local mall covered with these types of mats, as thousands of people walk, stand, shift move, electricity would be generated. As long as there is some movement to deform the piezo element, electricity will be generated; just standing and swaying of moving a little would be sufficient.

I am sure somebody has already thought of this (but I haven’t checked patents).

I think it is a more viable alternative than solar power because this type of power generation integrates into our daily life. We do not set power generation apart from our life, it becomes part of and a consequence of our life. Instead of wasting the energy we generate while moving about, we harness it.

Do we need to install huge wind farms? I don’t think so, imagine covering building with piezo elements or mats, just the normal sway of the building in winds would be sufficient to generate electricity. The vibrations of people walking through the building of cars and trucks driving by would generate electricity.

Imagine if the structures of buildings had piezo electric elements installed in them, every movement, twitch, sway would generate some electricity.

That was my idea. So far it has only remained an idea and I have never investigated it beyond the concept.


KayMac said…
Intriguing concept...the places these could be used is endless. I would purchase a personal UPG! Speaking of alternative power sources...I heard on the radio this morning about this guy who fuels his vehicle w/ scrap wood from his mill and is getting up to 90 miles per hour! I will have to search this out.
Barbara said…
You are so much like my genius father it's uncanny. One of his many ideas was to harness the power of the waves.
It makes sense to me. And what about installing them in all the gyms and fitness clubs where there is an infinite source of movement on bikes, treadmills, rowers and ellipses etc.
The bike idea was in a film from Ont. Hydro I showed gr. 6's in the 80's.

Many farmers here have wind mills and lots of people have solar panels to heat swimmimg pols if not solar panel heating for houses. I only know a few who have straw bale houses and a few who heat and generate power by having an outdoor wood stove which heats up water etc.

Keep thinking, writing down your ideas and sending them somewhere.

(My current idea was a marketing idea for Bell Sympatico to sell stuffed beavers of Frank and Gordon from their ads! I 've loved them since their ads during Olympics. I think they'd really sell and they missed the boat for this Christmas. I got the # for the ad pres. but chickened out!)
Richard said…
kaymac: mind you, a single mat would not generate sufficient power to power a TV or anything.

barbara: I was thinking more along the lines of trying to unobtrusively capture and transform energy that is normally wasted. Capturing wave motion is an interesting idea. I am not familiar with anything other than small scale projects.

MOI: As mentioend to barbara, my objective was to look at how to try and recover energy that is normally lost. There are a number of technical hurdles, as well as political. It is something that requires a decent physicist's brain.

I think your idea is wonderful. Although, I would suggest that it could be a wonderful marketing opportunity for you. (1) get rights from Sympatico, (2) find someone to manufacture them (the look a lot like the beavers from Narnia), (3) get Bell to flog them on their website and stores, (4) it is really easy to give advice to others ;-)
Thanks, Richard. I have lots of ideas I never act upon, but I can just picture these! Of course, I think it should be a Canadian Toy Co. that makes them...I have no idea what that would be.
Richard said…
MOI: I did a quick search for plush beavers and narnia (thrown in for good measure), but come up with nothing aside from some goofy looking ones at the Canadian Mint.

So, it looks like plush beavers are a niche needing to be filled.
As best I can tell, the human body, when purposefully generating work (riding a bicycle, lifting, etc.) has an efficiency of somewhere between 11% and 14%. That counts only how many calories (actually kilocalories) of food it takes to do a given amount of "useful" work. It does not count the sun to plant to animal to slaughterhouse to processing plant to distributor to store to house to stove to mouth efficiency (leave out some of those if you're a vegetarian).

So, unless someone is exercising to remain physically fit, utilizing the human body to convert sunlight to electricity is quite inefficient.

Let's run some "back of the envelope" calculations though. There are about 3*10^8 people in the U.S. Say 1*10^8 of them walk on office, factory, or school floors, walk through revolving doors, etc. Now, the average adult uses something like 2500 kilocalories per day, let's say 100 of those are used putting feet on floors, using doors, etc. (very generous in my opinion). At 14% efficiency by the human and 50% efficiency by the generator (piezo electric, magnetic, etc.) we have: 100 kilocalories*0.14*0.5 kilocalories of useful work per day per person to be captured.

Work divided by time is power so the above can be converted to watts (use Google's calculator). This yields 0.339 watts. This is the effective continuous power output per person on average. Multiply this by 1*10^8 for 33,900,000 or 3.39*10^7 watts available nationwide calculated on a continuous basis. Per the CIA World Factbook, in 2005 we used electricity at the rate of 3.816 trillion kilowatt hours/year, or 4.353*10^11 watts.

Hence, using extremely optimistic assumptions, this scheme could generate 0.008%, or 8 one thousandths of 1% of our electricity.

As I said though, when we do this, we're converting solar power inefficiently into electricity. Better to invest the money into more efficient generation schemes, except at health clubs, etc., where people are working out into a load and it might just as well be an electrical load that serves a purpose.

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